U.S. Auto Sector Tries to 'Out-German the Germans,' Says Cadillac CMO

Uwe Ellinghaus Just Wants Cadillac to Be Itself

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Uwe Ellinghaus
Uwe Ellinghaus

Uwe Ellinghaus keeps finding himself in hot water for the things he says. Most recently, he took flack from the auto industry for declaring, "When I recruit people, I do not need 'petrolheads.'" He defends his statement, saying Cadillac's issue isn't the product, it's the brand.

"While there are no great brands without great products, having a great product isn't always sufficient for winning customers over, and this is what we currently experience," Mr. Ellinghaus said.

He maintains that Cadillac is the last American luxury auto brand, "but if you look at the success that BMW, Audi and others in the sector have had, Cadillac has fallen behind," he said. Mr. Ellinghaus believes the brand is simply trying to be something it's not -- and has lost its way in the process. He outlined for Ad Age his plan to reinvent the brand and "bring it back to the glory it once had."

1. Re-establish Cadillac as a luxury brand
Approximately 40% of all luxury cars in the U.S. are sold in New York and Los Angeles. But while Cadillac's sales are consistent -- strong even -- in certain parts of the country, the brand is "really losing out on the coasts," said Mr. Ellinghaus. His solution is to "show that we are a part of target audience's lifestyle," and that the brand can resonate in New York and Los Angeles. Hence, the brand headquarters' relocation to New York City's SoHo neighborhood, with offices and a showroom slated to open in mid-2015.

There are critics of the move, to be sure. But Mr. Ellinghaus refers to New York City as "the network of luxury," in part because he sees it as "the only cosmopolitan city in the United States," citing its European and Asian influences. "To a certain extent, it's the city all others are measured by," he said. It is also part of the inspiration behind Cadillac's re-branding effort. Elaborating on his belief that New York CIty's success lies in being demanding and stimulating, Mr. Ellinghaus said, "it reinvents itself every day and this is a mindset I want to inject in the brand itself."

2. Stop trying to out-German the Germans
"I find it funny that being the German [at the] table, I'm always the one saying 'we need some Americana back,'" Mr. Ellinghaus said. "If I'm frank, people in this country admire German cars so much that they emulate their success recipes and try to out-German the Germans, as I always say."

Every automaker has replicated the fantasy car visual. It's a sleek sedan zooming through gorgeous scenery -- winding hills, foliage and never ending road. Audi's done it. BMW's done it. So has Cadillac.

"What we need to avoid is American cliches -- don't expect James Dean or Elvis Presley to be a part of future communications," Mr. Ellinghaus said. So what is this 'modern Americana,' he seems so determined to convey?

"There is a cool Americana, a contemporary American Spirit. It's definitely sleeker, more reduced but not as clean and cold and sterile as Japanese minimalism or Scandinavian design," he said. He describes American coffee shops, filled with rich brown colors and upscale restaurants that forego white linens. It's a less ostentatious luxury.

"America is a little more casual in its interpretation of luxury, it's a little warmer than the Europeans tend to interpret it," he said. It's not Louis Vuitton, though he does admire the French brand's power and recognizability. It's something Cadillac aspires to but hasn't achieved yet.

3. Create a recognizable brand experience
"If you look at our dealer appearances the world over, they do not look the same," said Mr. Ellinghaus. "People aren't saying 'yeah, that's Cadillac, that's unmistakably Cadillac.'" The brand lacks consistency and changing that is Mr. Ellinghaus' main goal.

He concedes that German automakers have invested in their dealer networks. "They all have standalone dealerships, while we still share many of ours with other GM brands. I just think we need a little more brand separation," he said.

Mr. Ellinghaus stresses he isn't a "product guy" or an "advertising guy." He says he's "the guy who tries to align all of the touchpoints -- product, price, position, showroom appearance, communication, the dealer experience." Having the car come to customers, instead of having them go to the showroom, is just one of the potential changes he plans to implement.

Look for big changes in 2015. Mr. Ellinghaus says a new look and feel and a new brand point of view are on tap. New creative from recently-appointed global creative agency of record Publicis will roll out early next year. Cadillac will be launching its new top-of-the-line car, the CT6 with a major marketing push between the Academy Awards on Feb. 22 and the New York International Auto Show taking place April 3 through April 12, 2015.

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